Over in Scientopia, SciCurious has a nice post about suffering from Impostor Syndrome, the feeling that everyone else is smarter than you are, and you will soon be exposed as a total fraud. Which is nonsense, of course, but something that almost every scientist suffers at some point. The post ends on a more upbeat note, though, when she thinks about fighting it:
The more I thought about ways to combat imposter syndrome, either by myself or in academia in general…the more I came up with nothing. Until today, when I was working out.
I’m doing circuit training, and as I worked my way through squat thrusts, Arnold presses and kettlebell lunges, I was thinking about how great I feel when I’m training and running and racing. Sure, I have as many bad days training and racing as I do in the lab, and I’m probably competing against WAY more people, but then, failure in running just doesn’t seem to hurt as much, there’s always the feeling in running that you can pick yourself up, work a little harder, come back a little stronger, and try again. Of course, there’s the fact that this isn’t my career, but still, even so, a bad race just doesn’t mess with my head. It rolls right off, I feel bad for a day, and then I get back up driven to do better at my next one.
And then I realized why. It’s because running, and sports in general, LOVE underdogs. We love to hear heroic tales of people who overcame great odds, who suffered staggering defeat, and then who worked hard, pushed themselves, and made it. You never read a profile of a great runner without reading about the hard times in their lives, the difficulties they had in training, the mental blocks, the personal troubles, whatever it was. The glory is in watching them overcome, and come back, and win, against the odds. Seeing people succeed after having worked so hard and dealt with so much is inspiring. We can believe that we can do it, too. We can come back, fight another day.
We love to hear about underdogs in sports, in media, in literature. But one place you’ll never hear about them? Science. Academia.
It’s an interesting point (and there’s more to it– you should go read the whole thing), and one that hadn’t occurred to me before. Like any good blogger, of course, I immediately began thinking about how this ties into my personal hobbyhorses, in particular the question of societal attitudes toward science. This is something I’m spend a lot of time thinking about these days, and I think there’s probably a connection.
In particular, I think it’s interesting to look at the stock narratives regarding sports figures compared to scientists. When you read a profile or biography of a great athlete, as SciCurious notes, there’s always a lot of material on their overcoming adversity. If their family was poor, there are stories about scrimping and saving, or learning to play with wholly inadequate equipment. If their parents split up or died, there’s a bunch of stuff about how that affected their mental state. Even athletes who were pretty comfortably middle-class their entire lives get glowing things written about their “will to win” and the hours upon hours they spent honing their skills.
The stock scientific biography, on the other hand, is a story of the inevitable triumph of genius. Which is not to say that childhood traumas are glossed over– that sort of thing is good copy no matter what– but the emphasis always seems to be on the intrinsic brilliance of the future great scientist. If they breezed through school, much is made of that. If they have a spotty school record, they were bored because they were smart, or chafed at authority because they were so much more brilliant than average. You don’t get a whole lot of talk about how they spent hours struggling to learn the tools and techniques of their future career through sheer diligence, a “will to science” as it were.
Having noticed this thanks to SciCurious, I think this is part and parcel with the general attitude toward science in our society. I’m not sure if it’s case, effect, or a linear superposition of the two, but I suspect there’s some relationship between the way we shrug off innumeracy and the way we tell stories about scientists.
The notable thing about this is that the stories we tell about sports are fundamentally inclusive while the stories we tell about science are exclusive. In both cases, we’re talking about people who do things that are completely beyond the reach of the average person, but when we tell those stories about athletes, they’re cast in a way that makes them seem different from ordinary people only in a quantitative sense– they’re a little taller, a little quicker, a little more disicplined. The framing invites the reader to imagine themselves at the center– “If I’d only been a few inches taller, that could’ve been me,” or “If I’d been able to spend a little more time working on my swing…”
The standard stories about scientists, on the other hand, are exclusive. They tend to emphasize the difference between the reader and the subject. Even as children, great scientists are often portrayed as qualitatively different, as people whose brains just work in a fundamentally different way. They either breeze through their education, or battle with administrative structures that are too confining for their genius. The framing encourages the reader to step back and gape in amazement at the subject.
There’s something distancing about the way the stock narratives approach scientists compared to athletes. A sports figure is usually presented as someone who’s just like you, the reader, but a little better. A scientist is usually presented as someone who’s completely beyond you, better at what they do in ways that render them almost incomprehensible.
(I suspect that this probably stems in part from the fact that many scientific biographies are written by people who have little scientific training, while sports biographies are written by people who have a good idea how to play the games they write about, if not the ability needed to play at a high level. The two biographies of famous physicists written by other high-level physicists that I’ve read, Quantum Man by Lawrence Krauss and Subtle Is the Lord… by Abraham Pais have much less of a distancing effect, and, indeed, tend to make the thought processes of Feynman and Einstein a good deal more comprehensible than other biographies (Genius by James Gleick, and bits of Walter Isaacson’s book on Einstein). Krauss and Pais make their subjects vastly more human as scientists, despite spending much less time on their personal lives. I’m not that big a reader of biographies, though, so I can’t claim a high degree of statistical significance here.)
This distancing effect is similar to the effect of “You must be really smart” as an initial reaction to meeting a scientist. It’s a compliment to the subject, but it’s a compliment with an edge– the implication is that the subject isn’t just a little bit smarter than the reader or speaker, but that they’re different in a fundamental way. Were I more fond of humanities jargon, I’d probably use words like “othering” here.
So, I agree with SciCurious that I’d like to see more stories about scientists that are cast like stories about athletes. Talk more about the way they overcame adversity through hard work, or rose from humble origins (may I suggest Michael Faraday as a possible subject?), and how they’re like the rest of us, not how they’re fundamentally different from us. This can have benefits not only for the psyches of early-career scientists struggling with Impostor Syndrome, but for the status of science as a whole.